Nagin trial: Tropical trips and NFL tickets used as bribes, say witnesses

James Plummer Contributor
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NEW ORLEANS – The federal corruption trial of former mayor C. Ray Nagin continued Friday.

Four prosecution witnesses  — three city contractors and one of Nagin’s top aides — told tales of favors and payments given to the mayor and his family in exchange for lucrative city contracts.

The alleged graft included trips to Jamaica, Hawaii, and the 2007 NFC Championship game in Chicago.

The government’s lead witness, Rodney Williams, began his testimony on Thursday, testifying that he and two business partners in Three Fold Consultants each wrote $20,000 checks to Nagin’s family business, Stone Age Granite. Prosecutors and their witnesses said the payments greased the wheels for millions of dollars in city contracts.

Friday morning, Nagin attorney Robert Jenkins pressed Williams on the nature of his plea agreement with the Justice Department, insinuating that Williams had changed his story on Nagin to avoid liability in a federal investigation of FEMA contract fraud in the rebuilding of St Mary’s Academy. Williams denied that.

Williams is still awaiting sentencing on Nagin-related charges he had pled guilty to months earlier.

Following Williams on the stand Friday morning was his business partner, Bassam Mekari. Mekari described himself as an “engineer,” as opposed to Williams, who specialized in “marketing.”

Mekari contradicted Williams’ story somewhat, saying it was he who suggested to Williams they go to the FBI with information about Nagin once they learned the feds were investigating the St. Mary’s project.

Mekari, who was later hit up for an additional $10,000 for Stone Age Granite, “disguised as an investment,” said he had expressed misgivings about the money: “When it came to giving money to politicians… I never understood the concept. [Williams] said ‘you had to pay to play in New Orleans. I heard that a lot from the business community in New Orleans.”

In cross-examination, the defense pointed out that Mekari was on probation and had escaped prosecution pending his testimony.

Jenkins would also raise questions about the plea agreement of the next witness, Nagin’s Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert.

Meffert first testified about Nagin’s relationship with city contractor Mark St. Pierre. Meffert said an executive order signed by Nagin was designed to make it easier for the city to grant no-bid contracts to St. Pierre’s business. Many of Nagin’s expenses were charged to St. Pierre’s American Express card, including first-class tickets to Jamaica for Nagin, his wife, and three children, as well as a $1080 bar tab on the occasion of Nagin’s 50th birthday.

Meffert also testified that St. Pierre paid for regular lawn work for both Meffert and Nagin, travel to Hawaii for the Meffert and Nagin families, and cell-phone service for the Nagin family.

Meffert further testified he had found a private jet to fly Nagin to the 2007 NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears in Chicago.

Prosecuting attorney Matthew Coman displayed an email from Nagin to St. Pierre in which the mayor said, after Chicago, the jet needed to “get to Vegas Sunday night or first thing Monday.” “What was in Vegas?,” Coman asked Meffert.

Meffert simply replied, “Vegas… he wanted to go to Vegas,” as at least one juror smiled and shook his head.

Meffert said that he usually told those who asked that he had personally paid for the trips. Aaron Bennett, the city contractor who arranged for the corporate jet, later billed the city for Nagin’s trip after it was reported on in local media.

Bennett’s aggressive lobbying in person and over email turned off Nagin, who finally emailed Bennett: “Nope, not interested. My sons will not be able to do business with you guys as long as you go after city business.” The defense is likely to lean on that message throughout the trial as proof of Nagin’s innocence, though prosecutors characterized it as a fig leaf.

The final witness of the day, Frank Fradella, called Bennett a “bull in a china shop.” Fradella’s firm, Home Solutions of America, employed Bennett as an executive.

It was a Home Solutions jet that flew to Chicago and Las Vegas. Said Fradella, “I thought it was a good idea, as it is common in New Orleans to entertain the dignitaries of the city.”

Fradella testified that he arranged for another Home Solutions partner to “invest” $50,000 in Nagin’s granite company after Nagin had told him Stone Age needed a $100,000 infusion. Fradella said he tried to make up the $50,000 difference with shipments of granite from Home Solutions’ inventory in Florida.

In exchange, Fradella said, Home Solutions received contracts to repair sidewalks in the French Quarter and received Nagin’s help in meeting with potential investors for Home Solutions.

Fradella also testified Nagin tried to help Fradella arrange terms to redevelop two abandoned properties — an Entergy power plant and a Six Flags amusement park. Those deals never went through, and the properties remain abandoned today.

The day concluded before Fradella’s testimony did.

As Nagin left the court, The Daily Caller noticed limp he had been sporting earlier in the week was much less pronounced – seemingly even non-existent.

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James Plummer